“A solid entry to the biopic canon”
Prison break films have always had a market, and the historical context of Escape from Pretoria adds verisimilitude to the genre; some suspense is inevitably removed in the process, but the psychological portraits are worth noting. Francis Annan’s film, based on the memoirs of ANC activist Tim Jenkin, opens on Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and his colleague Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) being arrested after blasting resistance pamphlets from homemade explosive devices. It is a nonviolent demonstration, albeit a noisy and unmissable one, and they are found guilty as terrorists by apartheid South African courts. Sent to Pretoria Local Prison for White Males, the two join forces with fellow inmates and hatch a plan to escape.
The events that follow are not necessarily surprising by virtue, though they are unfortunately hampered by staid pacing and an unremarkable visual style. The more fascinating yet mundane aspects of a real-life run – endless admin, coded letters, and unglamorous escape routes – seem ripe for creative stylistic and narrative choices, but these are largely squandered. On a more positive note, the film’s greatest strength is its myopia – Jenkin and Lee are the sole focus, and their internal and external choices are granted prominence. Small moments of doubt shine – the moments after the bombs explode, the sentencing, an ill-judged flight, a late-night breakdown in an isolated cell – highlighting the human toll of incarceration and fortitude in the face of unjust laws.
Daniel Radcliffe’s South African accent does not always convince, but the 30-year-old actor has grown from Harry Potter to more diverse and challenging fare with aplomb. He downplays Jenkin’s heroism at every turn: this is a man who is doing what he needs in order to live with himself, nothing more. There is a marked contrast between his cautious planning and Lee’s impulsive demeanour from the opening act of resistance through each stage of their imprisonment and escape. The resulting tensions further humanise these figures, putting the personal before the political.
On that note, the politics of the era run largely in the background aside from context given before Jenkin and Lee set off their explosives. That said, Escape from Pretoria is largely aware of the freedoms and possibilities afforded Jenkin and Lee based on their skin colour. Even in prison, a basic level of humanity is granted to them that is denied to the black cooks and janitors. Additionally, when the story of the group’s escape to London comes up over surtitles at the end, it notes that they were able to continue ANC efforts from abroad and successfully evade re-arrest. They have given up their country but found another measure of freedom in the process. In contrast, the news of Jenkin’s black partner’s detention following the prison break, and the fact that she could never see him again, is devastatingly noted. There is questionable value in focusing on white hardships and struggles during apartheid, even in allyship, but Escape from Pretoria largely sidesteps the worst of the white saviour trope through this cognisance. The story is never bigger than these men.
As Jenkin voices over the dissent that will land him in prison, ‘unless we got up from our privileged white lives and did something our lives were meaningless.’ While suffering from a lacklustre execution, Escape from Pretoria finds value in the little resistances without deifying its protagonists, proving a solid entry to the biopic canon and telling a story that is sadly as resonant today as it was in the 1970s.
Directed By: Francis Annan
Produced By: David Barron, Mark Blaney, Gary Hamilton, Michelle Krumm, Jackie Sheppard
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Webber, Ian Hart
Release Date: 6 March 2020
Featured Image Courtesy of Arclight Films